Contemporary Art

Phillip Guston | Remorse


It has become customary to refer to a sudden shift from abstraction to figuration in Philip Guston’s oeuvre, a dramatic volte-face announced by the exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in October 1970 where the painting Remorse was first displayed. The truth is that Guston’s work had been changing in different ways over the decade prior to this controversial show. Early in the 60s, after over a decade of abstract painting, Guston found himself forming dark blocky shapes in fields of grey, and by 1966, many of these shapes appeared like floating heads. Soon after these works were exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York, Guston gave up painting for a while and left New York for Florida where he worked mainly on drawings: a second change. As these became more and more minimal, he also began to make drawings and small paintings of everyday objects - books, shoes, lightbulbs, cigars, chairs: a third change. Many such panels were painted in early 1968, and it was not quite clear where the work was going, until an event in the middle of the year triggered him to use his new vocabulary of images in unanticipated ways.

The event was the Democratic Convention in Chicago. As Democrats met in the city to determine who would face Richard Nixon as their nominee for the 1968 presidential election, an array of different activists gathered, knowing their causes would be boosted by the attention that was being focussed on the city. Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley, determined that they should not interrupt the Convention, surrounded the Center with barbed wire and ordered the Illinois National Guard and the Chicago Police to crush the demonstrators, despite their peaceful tactics. From within the Convention, a Jewish senator, Abraham Ribicoff, referred to Daley’s actions as ‘Gestapo tactics’; Daley attacked Ribicoff shouting ‘Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy mother-fucker, go home.’ Guston, following the news on TV and in the papers, was reminded of the period thirty five years before, when, as a young left-wing Jew from an immigrant family, he had experienced the rise of the Klan inside the United States, and witnessed the rise of fascism outside it. Back then, he made murals, drawings, and paintings depicting klansmen committing acts of atrocity, rendered with careful realism. Now, appalled by the violence of Daley’s forces, and concerned by the ongoing brutality in the world around him, he created paintings populated by imaginary klansmen, this time in a cartoon-like style, looking like so many buffoons.

Peace demonstrators confront Illinois National Guardsmen outside the Conrad Hilton in Chicago, the Democratic Convention headquarters hotel, August 29, 1968. Image © AP Photo

By the time Guston exhibited the series, there were 33 paintings and 8 drawings. The klansmen were shown meeting in groups, smoking, drinking, driving around at dawn, arguing with each other, hiding their victims in cellars, looking at art, painting a self-portrait in a studio. Some paintings showed the city where they lived, the view out of their windows. Most had two or more figures, always in white hoods. Remorse was one of the few squarish paintings with a single dominating hood. It was also the only work where hood was bloody red.

Days after the opening, in an article that went down as the most famous response to his work during his lifetime, Hilton Kramer, writing in the New York Times, made the cruel argument that Guston had always been ‘a colonizer rather than a pioneer’. He had been late to Abstract Expressionism, and was late to this new style too, since ‘urban primitivism’ was already well established in the work of Claes Oldenburg, Red Grooms, and Jean Dubuffet. The review was titled ‘A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum.’ Guston later said he felt ‘chopped up.’ [1] Harold Rosenberg, writing in the New Yorker, was much more sympathetic. Interestingly, Rosenberg claimed that the KKK was not a ‘central issue in politics today’, and that Guston had chosen to paint klansmen because they could be used as ‘symbol of terror’ that could stand for various contemporary subjects, including ‘the Chicago police’. Rosenberg suggested that had Guston depicted a contemporary subject like the Chicago police or Vietnam directly, the paintings would be much less potent. Rosenberg’s assertion that the Klan was ‘not a central issue in politics today’ might seem surprising considering the Klan’s horrific actions in the 1960s – for instance, the bombing of the 7th Day Adventist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 and the killing of four Black girls, or the murder of four Jewish and Black freedom riders in 1964. To understand Rosenberg’s point, one might note that the Klan in the 1960s numbered in the tens of thousands. In the 1930s, it had been in the millions.

"They are self-portraits," he said. "I perceive myself as being behind the hood…. The idea of evil fascinated me, and rather like Isaac Babel, who had joined the Cossacks, lived with them, and written stories about them, I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan and plot." [6]

Left: Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969. Private Collection. Right: Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969. Private Collection. All Art © THE ESTATE OF PHILIP GUSTON, COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH.

Guston himself did not immediately make any statements about the 1970 show, but in talks he gave over the 1970s, usually in front of art students, and while showing slides, he began to open up. Each time he spoke about the paintings, he said that it was the horrific images coming out of Chicago that reawakened his memories of the 1930s and of the art he made in response to those times. But from one talk to the next, he would account for the Marlborough paintings in different ways. In August 1972, speaking to students at Yale Summer School of Music and Art, he said that once he began the klansmen series, ‘they started becoming very real to me.’ He couldn’t stop inventing new scenarios for them. ‘They’re eating. They’re having beer and hamburgers. They’re out in the car…. Everything came flowing out.’ [2] Guston spoke of his enjoyment in creating these scenes. ‘There’s marvelous things you can do. I think a story is the most marvelous thing in painting.’ [3] The following year, back at Yale, he again described the pleasures he experienced while on this run of painting. ‘I was having such a good time painting, it was releasing. I felt so free to do anything I wanted to do that everything seemed to fall into place…I felt like a movie director, like I was making a movie.’[4] In the Q&A at the end of his talk, someone asked who it was behind the hood, and for the first time, he mentioned that it had occurred to him that it ‘might be me.’ ‘Well, it could be all of us’, he qualified. ‘We’re all hoods.’ [5] Some years later, talking to an audience in Minnesota, he expanded on this idea.

Glenn Ligon recently quoted this passage in his text ‘In the hood’, published in the catalogue for Philip Guston Now, an exhibition first scheduled to open in 2020. ‘In the midst of a corrupt presidency, an escalating war in Vietnam, and unrelenting brutality directed at the civil-rights and black- power movements, Guston, unable to continue going to the studio “to adjust a red to a blue,” made a precipitous move from abstraction to figuration in order to explore issues of domestic terrorism, white hegemony, and white complicity.’ Guston, so Ligon argued, was brave enough not only to abandon the safety of New York School abstraction; not only to address his work to the political turmoil outside his studio; not only to depict monsters who had, earlier in his life, threatened him personally as a Jewish leftist immigrant. More than all that, Guston also asked the question to what extent he was complicit with forces sustaining white supremacy. ‘Guston’s “hood” paintings,’ Ligon wrote, ‘with their ambiguous narratives and incendiary subject matter, are not asleep. They’re woke.’ [7]

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Purple, White, and Red), 1953. Image © The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY. Art © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

With all this in mind, what can we make of Remorse? We might first assume it is a picture of a klansman feeling guilty about his evil. If we connect Remorse to the other scenes Guston painted, like City Limits which hung next to it at Marlborough, we might assume that this klansman has returned from one of the dawn drives around town on the hunt for victims. He is feeling bad about stuffing corpses into trash cans and cellars, and perhaps he feels chastised by one of the huge God-like hands whose fingers point out from the sides of the canvases like Caught or Courtroom towards the scenes of his crimes. Remorse, this reading goes, would be the exemplary painting in the Marlborough series, the one where the evil brute finally recognises his wrongs.

The problem with this reading is that it pays little attention to the texture and indeed the contents of the painting. The lower quarter of the work, a kind of black cape covering the klansman’s shoulders, is a field of animated AbEx brushwork, full of energetic short horizontal and vertical strokes overlaying a pink ground. The hood itself is traversed by several lines of stitches, some black, some white, some grey, some red, dividing the red triangle into squares and rectangles and smaller triangles. Guston sometimes spoke of his enjoyment in creating his art, and he clearly took pleasure in the new mode of his painting exemplified on this canvas. In the painting we also see a door and a lightbulb dangling in front of the slits of the hood, and two other elements: a white frame just at the peak of the hood, and a white line immediately in front of him. These white lines are harder to identify than the door and bulb, but in another related work, the rectangle on the wall behind the klansman was named by Guston as ‘a Rothko’. ‘He’s looking at a field painting,’ Guston said. [8] With this comment in mind, I think the white elements in Remorse stand for Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

The only time Guston talked about Remorse, he was in front of a slide of the work, and immediately after saying that it showed a klansman who was ‘sad’, he changed topic to recall how he had abandoned his colleagues while painting the Marlborough works.

"‘I didn’t go into New York. Or I went to New York but I wouldn’t go see a show. There were a lot of retrospective shows when I was in [the city], but I hadn’t the slightest interest. I would have to send elaborate telegrams to de Kooning about why I couldn’t come to his big show at the Modern. I just didn’t want to look at painting. … I remember Barney Newman called me, he was having this big show at Knoedler, and I said, ‘Barney, I really….'" [9]

Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51. Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY. Art © 2022 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

If Guston at times spoke of the hoods as self-portraits, and if he pictured one of them painting in The Studio, it cannot be too much of a stretch to suggest that Remorse shows Guston at a moment of conflict: resolute about his new path, but surrounded by reminders of the work of his New York School friends, he is sad that with this new direction, he will be cut off from them.

So, in the end, what do we do with Remorse? Is it a painting of a klansman who has committed acts of atrocity and who finally feels some guilt, and a work that therefore stands for the remorse that should be experienced by all those whose evil is concealed under hoods, all those who perpetuate white supremacy, whether by direct actions or by their silent complicity with the status quo? Or is Remorse an image of Guston’s sadness at this key moment where he is about to abandon the artistic milieu that sustained him for decades? The painting won’t give any clear answers, both readings are viable, and it is Guston’s achievement to prevent either one from winning out.

[1] Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge, University of California Press, 2011, p.221

[2] Philip Guston, ‘Talk at Yale Summer School of Art and Music’, 1972, in Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge, University of California Press, 2011, p.156

[3] Ibid., p.157

[4] Philip Guston, ‘Talk at Yale Summer School of Art and Music’, 1973, in Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge, University of California Press, 2011, p.223

[5] Ibid., p.224-25

[6] Philip Guston, ‘Talk at “Art/Not Art” Conference, University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, February 27, 1978 in Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge, University of California Press, 2011, p.282

[7] Glenn Ligon, ‘In the hood’ in Harry Cooper, Mark Godfrey, Alison de Lima Greege, and Kate Nesin (eds.), Philip Guston Now, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Tate Modern, London; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2020, p. 117

[8] Philip Guston, ‘Talk at Yale Summer School of Art and Music’, 1972, in Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, edited by Clark Coolidge, University of California Press, 2011, p.159

[9] Ibid, p. 157

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